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Push to relocate Canberra public servants to northern Australia

Date

Phillip Thomson

The City of Townsville has suggested limiting public service jobs offered in Canberra.

The City of Townsville has suggested limiting public service jobs offered in Canberra.

Sun-soaked cities at the top of Australia are crying out for Canberra's federal bureaucrats to be relocated to the nation's north.

Regional centres in northern Australia are energetically lobbying the federal government to decentralise the bureaucracy which, at the moment, keeps 40 per cent of its 160,000-strong workforce in the ACT. 

The City of Townsville has even suggested limiting public service jobs offered in Canberra, faster career progression for bureaucrats who move north and the introduction of regional-based graduate programs. 

The Abbott government has already indicated it is open to the idea and, if successful, it could mean public servants moving more than 4000 kilometres in some cases.  

Already there are plans to disperse the Commonwealth public service workforce to boost regional economies.

At least 600 will be moved to the Central Coast while investigations are underway about relocating others to Tasmania.  

The federal parliament's inquiry into the development of northern Australia is now dealing with requests from places such as Townsville and Cairns in Queensland, Kununurra in West Australia and Darwin. 

The inquiry's chairman, Warren Entsch, whose Leichhardt electorate takes in the top of Queensland, said he would love a public servant to be his neighbour.

"The house prices are a hell of a lot more affordable here than in Canberra and we don't have the gas bills in winter," Mr Entsch said on Thursday after the prospect of importing bureaucrats was raised again at another meeting.

This time it was at Weipa, near the northern most tip of Queensland, where locals said more federal quarantine and indigenous civil servants should be based. 

"Given the choice, I don't think you'll find we have to force people here - we'd have no problem recruiting the numbers we require," Mr Entsch said.

Cities such as Townsville and Cairns say they are the logical choice in a number of instances for a bigger Commonwealth presence.

The City of Townsville, which has been dealing with horror decade-high unemployment figures this year, in its submission has argued it should be home to south-east Asia and Pacific trade policy experts from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT).

The submission said its proximity to Papua New Guinea and other countries would facilitate more regional trade.

Already there were about 1500 federal public servants in Townsville with the submission noting the overwhelming majority were classified APS 2 to 6, while most executives were in Canberra.

The submission said there were five bureaucrats in Townsville working on federal infrastructure, transport and regional portfolios.

It said Townsville would be more relevant for public servants dealing with tourism, energy and resources and Townsville's business chamber ranked relocation of public servants the second most important economic stimulus behind increasing the area's power supply.

Mr Entsch said proposals to relocate public servants were "not about picking up half of Canberra and moving it to northern Australia" but more about permanently shifting satellite groups of workers. 

The benefit for policy makers was they would have a deeper knowledge of the north, which was very different to southern Australia in terms of climate, geography and economy.

He said it was easy for the southern-based bureaucracy to make assumptions not reflected in reality. 

Cairns Regional Council suggested some support functions for Defence were based in southern Australia even though they were related to operations in the north.

"With a growing research and teaching capacity at James Cook University, benefits may also accrue to Defence from the relocation of its malaria and dental units to Cairns to capitalise on the growing local research capability," its submission said. 

Its submission also suggested it would be the best home for others including some from Australian Customs, CSIRO and the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service. 

Kennedy MP Bob Katter, who was not on the committee of inquiry, said he was supportive of the idea because all power centralised in Canberra was counterproductive.

"Joh Bjelke-Petersen said repeatedly that Canberra is a roads department that does not build roads, a health department that does not provide health services," he said. 

"At present we need an engineer to build roads, another tier of engineers to make submissions to Canberra, then another tier in Canberra to handle the submissions, trebling the costs of road building."

Mr Katter said the biggest challenge would be not disrupting the lives of public servants relocated. 

"You need to do it with the policy of attrition," he said. 

 

66 comments

  • And will the Government increase budgets to facilitate the endless travel that these regional offices will need to undertake back to Canberra every year?

    That's the whole point of having a capital city; so that the levers of administration (the APS) are close to the level pullers (Government).

    Commenter
    Some cheese with your whine?
    Date and time
    July 07, 2014, 9:20AM
    • +1

      I was going to make a similar comment, but you beat me to it. There is a reason why most countries in the world have capital cities and centralised governments.

      Commenter
      Mads
      Date and time
      July 07, 2014, 11:22AM
    • The extra costs to the PS of John Howard choosing to live in Kirribilli House instead of at The Lodge were huge. Now we are to have Tony Abbott living in Kirribilli, the Parliament sitting in Canberra and the public service to be dispersed across northern Australia.

      I suppose to people in the present government who think that their budget made sense, this daft idea would also have appeal. As my old grandmother would have said: they've not got the brains they were born with. I'd use stronger language myself except that it would miss being published.

      Commenter
      MJM
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 6:00PM
    • you might have had a point 20 years ago. Technology has eliminated the need for centralisation now however. So no, you don't even need to travel, just video-conference instead.

      Commenter
      welcome to the future
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 11:14PM
  • The cost of moving the APS + the needed infrastructure needed (why, hello canned NBN) would see this end disastrously. Not to mention a decline in the quality of candidates for people not willing to live in regional backwaters moving into the private sector instead.

    And obviously, completely ignoring trashing the nation's capital if it's done as well.

    Commenter
    Camm
    Date and time
    July 07, 2014, 9:28AM
    • Canberra used to be a regional backwater too.

      Commenter
      Tim
      Date and time
      July 07, 2014, 12:42PM
    • Hey Tim, Canberra is still a backwater to some of us.

      Commenter
      j frank parnell
      Location
      los alamos
      Date and time
      July 07, 2014, 1:47PM
    • Haha - not realising Canberra is the regional backwater - FAIL!

      Commenter
      Matthew
      Date and time
      July 09, 2014, 9:39AM
  • Just brilliant, I really thought I had seen it all when Labour completely lost the plot at the end of their days of horror, but seriously, prop up struggling towns in Far North Queensland with Federal Public Servants and decimate the nations capital at the same time, what genius worked that plan out, probably the one who figured out he or she would get more travel allowance to go visit their departments in far off places.

    Commenter
    WTF are you clowns on about now
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    July 07, 2014, 9:39AM
    • They don't seem to realise that Canberra contains rich experience in running an efficient bureaucracy. Yes, there are warm bodies in Cairns, but having a good public service is more than having a pool of warm bodies. Every time a PS position would open in these regional areas there would either be nobody with experience, or else someone would have to up and move there to fill it. The amount of sharing and movement of that experience would dry up.

      Commenter
      John
      Date and time
      July 07, 2014, 9:55AM

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